Confessions of a Self-Help Book Reader
Some I laughed at and threw out: smug men preaching the virtues of open relationships; supermodels sharing man-catching tips (as if anyone so magically endowed had secrets that could be transferred to mere mortals); or scarred veterans of the war between the sexes writing screeds about how to dump pond-scum partners. Others I thumbed through, getting hooked against my will. These books were, well, helpful. From Dalma Heyn's Drama Kings: The Men Who Drive Strong Women Crazy, I learned to identify certain kinds of boyfriends I was susceptible to. One was the "Easygoing Guy," or EGG—"so friendly, so attractive, so subtly, characterologically mysterious," who's "present, but not entirely, not all the way." The EGG, she concluded damningly, was "a performer acting casual in order to ward off relationship." Wised up by Heyn, I informed my then-boyfriend (an EGG) that I had noticed his evasiveness. "You're in the shower with a raincoat on," I said. "I think it's time to either take off the raincoat or get out of the shower." We are still friends, though we are not "involved."
From Debbie Magids and Nancy Peske's All the Good Ones Aren't Taken, I learned about women who sabotage their own romantic chances—the "Old Faithful" who hangs on to an old love and never makes room for a new one; the "Standstill," too shy and cautious to step into the fray; and the one I recognized myself in, with a sting of regret, the "Whirlwind Dater"—busy and social, prone to serially monogamous relationships that have little likelihood of working out long-term. Anna Karenina left her husband for Vronsky, I thought. If she'd had a career in New York at the turn of the 20th century, would she have put her head on the tracks when the liaison soured, or gone on to...the next Vronsky? Literature alone is not enough to sort out contemporary mores. "The end" is a fiction. The reality is: What's next?
Last summer, while I was visiting friends at a beach house, the hostess, who'd recently landed her hard-to-get boyfriend after a complicated courtship, sat next to me poolside, explaining what had turned the tide in their affair. The relationship had been touch and go for a long time, she admitted. But a year before, she had read a review of a book titled It's Called a Breakup Because It's Broken, which had convinced her that she needed to kill her relationship to save it. Talking further, we realized it was my review that had led her to the book. She never had believed in self-help books before, she said, but with my apparent sanction, she had dared. "I was too proud to buy it, so I was reading it in the Barnes & Noble coffee shop, concealing the cover," she told me. "Afterward, for weeks, I did just what the book said, avoiding the places I knew I'd see him, not calling, not being available. I would repeat after myself like a mantra, 'It's called a breakup because it's broken, it's called a breakup because it's broken...'"
It's not broken now, for her. I'm delighted if my tardy embrace of the relationship genre can help any of my friends; and with any luck, someday I'll acquire the ingenuity to make it work for me. For the moment, though, I'm still struggling to keep EGGs at bay, and waiting with curiosity (not unmixed with dread) to see what wisdom the next unsolicited manuscript on my doorstep may contain. If it's not a self-help book, that's okay: It's high time I reread The Technique anyway.
Looking for a few good self-help books? Get Liesl's top five .
Liesl Schillinger is a writer based in New York.